What it preaches is admirable. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office almost one year ago, he gave his ministers mandate letters that emphasized they must “observe the highest ethical standards in everything you do.”
In particular, he told them not to let anyone buy influence. Specifically, they were told to abide by the principle that “there should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties.”
And to top it off, the prime minister told his ministers to err on the side of caution. Living up to his lofty ideals, he reminded them, “is an obligation that is not fully discharged by simply acting within the law.”
Yet here we are, learning that the finance minister, Bill Morneau, hosted an exclusive $1,500-a-ticket Liberal party fundraiser last week at the Halifax home of a mining executive turned land developer. About 15 people reportedly attended the event, including other prominent business people who might well find it to their advantage to spend a convivial evening in the company of the man who directs national economic policy.
What the government practices, then, is hard to reconcile with its earnest preaching. The opposition, naturally, pounced on the apparent discrepancy, with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair observing of the $1,500 price-tag, “When it comes to getting the ear of the person overseeing billions of dollars in public spending, that is quite a bargain.”
He's not wrong. The Liberals' retort that they are following the federal conflict-of-interest rules now in force is fine as far as it goes, but it falls short of Trudeau's exhortation to his ministers to live up to the highest standards, not simply to stay within the legal guidelines.
All this is more worrisome because it doesn't seem to be an isolated event. The Globe and Mail reported last week that the Morneau fundraiser was one of at least 20 similar events this year featuring senior cabinet ministers.
The federal ethics commissioner, Mary Dawson, raised the same issue in June in her annual report. She urged a crackdown on ministers providing access in return for party donations, and cited four examples involving Liberal ministers – including Morneau again and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. Dawson made it plain she thinks the existing rules aren't adequate to “maintain and enhance public confidence and trust in the integrity of ministers and parliamentary secretaries.”
Public opinion is clearly changing on this kind of thing, which was once regarded simply as business-as-usual. The federal Liberals would be well advised to get ahead of this issue before the perception that their rhetoric on ethics is just the same-old takes firm hold among voters.
The prime minister was right a year ago to urge his ministers to act above reproach, not simply within the rules. He should hold them to that standard.
THE CANADIAN PRESS